October 19, 2015

Some Advice on a Paper Napkin


 What is this I’m holding in my hand?  A paper napkin.  What could it have to do with what I’d like to share with you this evening?
Just this.  I was in Romania last month talking to a group of students.  One of them asked me this question:

“Mr. Pepper, what advice would you leave for your grandchildren if you only had the space to write it on a small paper napkin?”

In the brief moment I had to reflect on that unexpected question, I was pulling from a lifetime of experience.

Here was my answer:
·      Believe in yourself
·      Do what you believe is right
·      Love People

Why did I choose these three points?  Why do I think it makes sense to share them with you tonight?  I hope what I say in the next few minutes will explain why.

“Believe in yourself”
I don’t know you young men and women who are proudly graduating today.  I do know that, when I was where you are, I was carrying doubts from the past—doubts which led me to take stock and push hard to believe in myself.

You see, growing up as a youngster, I was not that popular.  I was a poor athlete.  But I found reasons to believe in myself, just as you will—in my academic performance, in being the business manager of my school newspaper and even making a downfield tackle in a football game.  I recalled the victories, some small and some not so small; and I drew strength from the love of my parents and my faith in God.

Don’t let anyone ever tell you that you can’t do something.  Even more, don’t tell yourself you can’t do something.

If you are going to honor that mandate, you’ll find that you need to step out of your comfort zone.  What I remember as much as anything from high school, 60 years ago, was the decision to step out of my comfort zone to go out for the football team.  I didn’t become a starter, but I made the team.  I have drawn on this small victory as I approached many challenges:  applying to work at P&G, or even making a major speech.

You already know this.  Challenges are part of life.  The ones from which you learn the most will be those that stretch you most.

In believing in yourself, never be afraid to let your strengths shine bright.  I am reminded of these immortal words of Nelson Mandela:  “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.  It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.  We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?  Actually, who are you not to be?  Your playing small does not serve the world.  We are all meant to shine, as children do.”

And remember this.  If you believe something is really important, don’t give up.  Almost nothing truly important happens on the first try.  I will always recall the shortest speech Winston Churchill ever gave.  Just six words:  “Never, never, never, never give up.”  He then sat down.

Remember this, too:  Believing in yourself requires being yourself.  Never feel you need to act a part.  I love to hear it said of someone:  “what you see is what you get.”  Let your authenticity flow from you.  That is what you owe yourself.  That is what you owe others.  People will love and respect you in part for that--because it is so rare.

One other point.  As I remind myself to be myself—I add “be my best self.”

Let’s face it:  none of us are at our best every day.  I’ve often gone to bed discouraged and grumpy.  I’ve had a setback, a disappointment.  But there is one thing I know:  I’m going to wake up in the morning and face a choice.  I’m either going to tackle the issue at hand positively, reminding myself of my blessings and strengths, or I’m going to continue to feel down or sorry for myself.  It is our choice; my choice:  Am I going to be the best version of myself?

That choice is never more important than when it comes to the second point on my napkin.

“Do what you think is right.”

Who could argue with that you ask?  No one.  But I have found nothing more important than consistently doing what I believe is right.  Your self-esteem will rest on how you judge yourself in doing that and your reputation, your most precious asset, will rest on how others see you honoring—or not honoring—what you believe is right.  Personal integrity is the non-negotiable in every relationship. 

Years ago, a fellow P&Ger told me a story about her indoctrination on her first job out of school.  Her manager asked her to sit down.  His message was short and crystal-clear:  
We have a lot of rules and policies around here.  You will hear about many of them, but there is one that is more important than all the others—so important I want you to paste in on the inside of your eyelids and if you’re ever in doubt, shut your eyes and look at it.  The rule:  “Do what you believe is right.”
The one thing I’ve always asked of those who worked for me:  “Tell me what you think and act on what you believe to be true.”


I risk making this sound too easy.  It isn’t.  It can be hard to resist the pressure from a group of friends doing something which we don’t feel is right.  We hear a racist or sexist remark.  What do we do?  Speak up?  Remain silent and let it pass?  Yes, there are pressures and sometimes we are not sure what is the right thing to do.

That’s why my final prayer in church is to ask for the wisdom to know the right thing to do and the courage and perseverance to do it.  We will never be perfect, but consistency matters.

I often return to the words of this short poem: 

“Watch your thoughts; they become words.
                        Watch your words; they become actions.
                        Watch your actions; they become habits.
                        Watch your habits; they become character.
                        Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.”
                                                                        Frank Outlaw

Now, can anyone remember the third point on my napkin?

Love People! 
I don’t mean that we will love everyone to the same degree.  But I do mean to suggest that we meet everyone with an open mind and an open heart.

If there is one thing I’ve learned in life, it is that life is all about relationships, not only with people who are like me, but people who are different from me.  I’ve learned more from people who are different from me than in any other way.

It is easy to be put off by stereotypes.  We draw conclusions from superficial observations. 

Let me give you this piece of advice.  As you meet another person, try to see yourself in them and see them in yourself.  Please, try to think about that. 

Appreciate the differences but also appreciate the commonalities--of our challenges and our fears; our hopes and desires and dreams. 

Think about your fellow classmates sitting right alongside you.  You have learned from one another.  You have drawn confidence from one another.  You have taken joy from each other’s company.  I hope many of you will stay together for the rest of your lives.  I wish I had done more of that.  Borrowing on the words of a Josh Groban song, “we can raise each other up.” 

Countless people have lifted me up through their confidence and their love.  Above all my family.  But my best friends have done it as well.

Years ago I wrote a paper titled “If It Weren’t For Them.”  I named the people without whom I would not have become who I am.  The list included one of my high school teachers and a classmate named Buck Leary.  Buck was the all-start halfback on our team.  He helped me learn how to tackle; and I believe I helped him in math.

Yes, love people.  The simplest way I express it is that “everyone counts.”  

How do you show other people they count?  It is really pretty simple.  Greet them by name and with a smile!  Listen to them!  Hear what they say and sometimes what they don’t say.  Ask them a question!

I’ll never forget a visit I made to a P&G plant in South Africa which we had acquired a few years earlier.  I was on a tour with a black African.  I asked him how he liked being with P&G.  He said he loved it.  I sensed his enthusiasm.  I looked at him and asked him, “Why?”  His answer hit me between the eyes:  “Before P&G,” he said, “nobody would have asked me a question like that.” 
Imagine the gift we give someone by simply asking for their point of view.  That’s how we learn and convey honest respect.

Yes, love people.  Love people as they are…realizing that everyone has something to offer to you and you to them.

Well, there you have it.  My advice on a paper napkin—

·      Believe in yourself.
·      Do what you believe is right.
·      Love people.

In closing, let me offer one final thought.

You are graduating from one of the finest schools, not only in this city, but in the nation.

You are about to go on to outstanding universities.

99% of the youth in this country would give their eye-teeth to be where you are tonight.

With this comes great opportunity—and great responsibility.

As you go ahead on your journey of life, I urge you to share your time and talent with those who have not had the same opportunities.

Regrettably, my generation is leaving you with challenges on which I wish we had done better.

To have over 50% of the children in Cincinnati living in poverty today, many only a few miles from where we are right now, is a disgrace.  It need not be that way.

Lack of quality education is one of the root causes of this poverty.  We can change this.  Indeed we must.

The culture of Seven Hills has always focused on helping those around us.  Never lose that focus. The future of our community and our Nation depends on it.  And if my life and that of my wife Francie are any examples, so will the satisfaction you take from your own life.

So, “On you go,” drawing strength from your great accomplishments.

Keep learning!
Aim high!
Have fun!



  1. This is an incredible speech, John. It is a sermon everyone should hear. I am so glad you are the wise sage within our midst.
    Blessings always, Bev Croskery

  2. John, everytime i hear or Read you, it is Incredibly inspiring! Thanks!!

  3. So proud to have been part of John Pepper's P&G.

  4. Wonderful speech (passed along by Dave Jackson). I appreciate the perspective and reminder of these lessons as an adult. Many I might not have fully understood as a high schooler - but wish someone would I have said to me!

  5. Wonderful speech (passed along by Dave Jackson). I appreciate the perspective and reminder of these lessons as an adult. Many I might not have fully understood as a high schooler - but wish someone would I have said to me!